by Boehringer Ingelheim/September 25, 2023
Stress doesn’t just impact the hardworking dairy producer, it can also impact our calves. External stressors and management factors can compromise their immune system and make them susceptible to respiratory disease. Weaning, transportation and vaccination, to name a few, are all events in a calf’s life that can cause stress.
But there are things we can do to manage stress and keep calves healthy. “Taking a closer look at our management practices and improving them can help producers prevent respiratory infections from taking a toll on their herd and their bottom line,” said Linda Tikofsky, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim.
Implementing the following can help mitigate stress and prevent disease in your herd:
No. 1: Prioritize cleanliness and comfort
“I’ve seen calves raised successfully in a variety of housing situations,” Dr. Tikofsky observed. “Much of that success comes down to good management.”
Calves should be put in a clean, well-bedded, draft-free space that shields them from harsh weather conditions. “It is essential that housing for heifers has good ventilation to reduce airborne pathogens and dust that can put disease pressure on young animals,” stated Dr. Tikofsky.
Individual calf pens, where young calves don’t have nose-to-nose contact, are the best option to minimize the transmission of respiratory pathogens. If group housing is required, keep calves in small groups with at least 22 to 33 square feet per calf.1
No. 2: Practice low-stress handling
How we handle calves can greatly impact their stress levels, and it can also impact how they react to being handled in the future.
“When handling calves, we want to walk in positions where they can see us, and avoid staying directly behind them in their blind spot,” explained Dr. Tikofsky. “Other low-stress handling techniques include presenting a calm disposition, avoiding loud noises and removing visual distractions.”
No. 3: Feed calves a well-balanced diet
A structured feeding schedule, in which the calf is fed at the same time every day, reduces stress and improves average daily gain. The amount of feed should also be increased in colder weather, as animals burn more calories to stay warm. Work with a nutritionist to ensure calves are well-fed with a properly balanced diet.
No. 4: Manage parasites
Clinical or subclinical parasitism can suppress an animal’s immune system and decrease their ability to fight disease. Even calves kept in a confined environment can benefit from lice and mange control in the winter months. “Keep animals comfortable and tackle parasites by working with a veterinarian to implement a deworming protocol that works for your operation,” emphasized Dr. Tikofsky.
No. 5: Be ready with a game plan during stressful events
Even with the best management practices in place, some stressful events such as shipping are unavoidable. “When producers know that animals are about to experience a stressful event, metaphylaxis is an option to explore,” noted Dr. Tikofsky. Administering metaphylaxis, or a group antibiotic treatment, for at-risk animals can help reduce morbidity and mortality.
“Talk with a veterinarian about finding an antibiotic for metaphylaxis that works best for your herd,” Dr. Tikofsky concluded. “Typically, several factors should be evaluated, such as spectrum of activity, speed of action and post-metaphylactic interval, or the length of time the antibiotic is at effective levels in the bloodstream before another dose is required.”
1 Costa e Souza JP, Amaral-Phillips D. Respiratory diseases in dairy calves. Cooperative Extension Service: University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Available at: https://afs.ca.uky.edu/files/respiratory_diseases_in_dairy_calves.pdf.
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